TAMPA, Fla. -- Johnny Damon walked into the manager's office, surprising Joe Torre, then circled the clubhouse, greeting his new teammates with a smile, handshakes and pats on the back.
Damon is the new guy on the Yankees, taking over as center fielder and leadoff hitter. Even though the first workout for position players isn't until Wednesday, he showed up early at Legends Field, wanting to "get off to a good start and say hi and kind of get things rolling."
So wearing a baseball cap backward and a tank top that showed off his bulging arms, he introduced himself to players he didn't know and reacquainted himself with his former competitors.
"This is going to be my family for the season and for the next
four seasons," he said. "It is definitely very important."
It was reminiscent of the scene exactly three years earlier, when Hideki Matsui met his Yankees teammates, going around the room
and bowing to some. While Matsui was somewhat unknown, having come
from Japan, the Yankees are quite familiar with Damon, who spent
the past four seasons with the Boston Red Sox.
While no longer grungy -- the long locks have been trimmed to a length more pleasing to owner George Steinbrenner -- Damon remains the gregarious guy Boston fans grew to love.
"Everybody knows that I'm the type of guy that I am," he said.
"I'd rather go around, say hi to players first, instead of getting
my locker space ready or whatnot. I think it's very important, very
important to be part of a team and I've always been able to mix
well with every team I've been on."
New York hasn't had a top leadoff hitter since Chuck Knoblauch. Damon batted .316 for Boston last season with 117 runs, 10 homers,
75 RBI and 18 steals. The left-handed hitter's power numbers could
rise because of Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch -- the one
he hit a grand slam over in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.
Torre is looking for energy both on and off the field.
"There's a certain element of toughness that's going to help
any team," the manager said, likening Damon's style of play to
that of Derek Jeter. "He can give you a dimension that you don't
Damon met with Steinbrenner on Feb. 2 but didn't come across the
Yankees owner Saturday. Damon intends to play for the United States
in next month's inaugural World Baseball Classic, a tournament
As of now, Damon is "100 percent committed" to the tournament.
But he was unaware of Steinbrenner's feelings until reporters
"I agreed to be on the team when I was a free agent. I'll
definitely listen to what he has to say," he said, adding that the
issue would be discussed "behind closed doors."
Speaking later with reporters, Steinbrenner said he was "very
excited" Damon was with the Yankees and that Damon "has his right
to choose what he wants to do" as far as the invitation to play in
the tournament, which runs from March 3-20.
"It's a lot of time, but he's a good player. He'll be all
right," Steinbrenner said.
For now, with spring training just under way and no losing
streak possible for weeks, mutual praise was flowing.
"I always loved him as an owner because he always wants to
win," Damon said.
Damon takes over in center from Bernie Williams, who had held
the job since 1993. Williams won Gold Gloves from 1997-2000 but his
defense deteriorated in recent seasons. While Damon has a poor arm,
he can cover far more ground.
Williams remains with the Yankees, projected to see a lot of
time at designated hitter and back up the starting outfielders.
"We're going to talk a lot," Damon said. "Bernie and I have
gotten along great over the years. I'm not here to replace him.
Bernie has a job that he's going to help contribute with the
At times last year, especially in the first half of the season,
the Yankees appeared to lack energy on the field. They are an older
team, with nearly all starters over 30.
While Damon is 32, he is looked at as a spark.
"The only thing I've said to him is: 'You've already
established who you are. There's nothing for you to do that has to
be any different from that,' " Torre said. "The way I judge
people is not necessarily where they go eat dinner or where they
build a house, it's just how they play between the lines. And the
way he plays the game, it would be tough for him not to fit in
Mariano Rivera pitched off a mound for the first time this
year. "First day I don't think it will be all there, but I was
happy with the results," he said.